DEMOCRAT-LED BILLS THAT DIE EVERY YEAR IN SENATE COMMITTEE COULD SOON STAND A CHANCE
By: Faith Miller
September 26, 2018
You’ve heard it: Talk of a so-called “blue wave” sweeping the nation that could change the balance of power. If the wave hits Colorado’s Legislature it could mean the passage of bills representing longtime Democratic goals that have been thwarted, sometimes for years, by a narrow Republican majority in the state Senate.
Republicans have held the Senate since 2014, where they now hold a two-seat majority, while the House has been led by Democrats since 2012, now by a solid seven-seat majority. Seventeen Senate seats are up for re-election in November, and a January analysis by Westword found seven of them to be competitive. Of those, it wrote, “four are currently held by Democrats, two by Republicans, and one by an independent.”
The article went on to say, “It should be noted that all seven competitive state Senate districts this fall were won by Clinton in 2016 and four of the seven moved further left from 2012 to 2016, perhaps indicating that Trump’s unpopularity is impacting down-ballot candidates.”
In recent years, the split Legislature has meant that it’s tough for either party to pass legislation viewed as “partisan” — and, in a politically charged landscape, that can include everything from a bill that seeks to limit abortion to attempts to create universal sick leave. On the Democratic side of this divide, there’s a substantial list of bills that have passed in the House — some three or four times — but died in Senate committee before getting a vote.
That’s because before a bill gets to the floor, the House speaker or Senate president first assigns it to a committee, which can approve, amend or postpone it indefinitely (kill it). And bills that strike a partisan chord are often dead on arrival.
Here’s a look at some of the bills that might finally pass should the Democrats take the Senate in November, ahead of the legislative session that convenes Jan. 4.
Extreme risk protection orders, aka the “red-flag bill”: First introduced last session, this bill is aimed at curbing gun violence, including mass shootings. It allows a family or household member, or a member of law enforcement, to petition the court for an emergency order to temporarily remove firearms from someone who is believed to be a risk to themselves or others. A hearing would have to be held the same day the petition was filed, or the following day.
More than a dozen states have red-flag laws in place, several of which were passed since the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February.
The legislation cleared the House in May by a 37-23 vote, with only two Republicans voting yes. (One, Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial, was a prime sponsor and continues to face pushback over his support. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a pro-gun lobbying organization, recently distributed anti-Wist materials to his voters despite the fact that Wist’s opponent is a Democrat endorsed by gun-control groups.)
When the red-flag bill got to the Senate, it was promptly assigned to the GOP-controlled State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, where it was postponed indefinitely.
Still, Andrew Romanoff, CEO of the nonpartisan Mental Health Colorado and a former state House speaker, thinks the bill’s future is bright.
“We’re going to bring that back in January and hope to pass it with the new Legislature,” Romanoff says. “If you ask me, ‘What’s a step the Legislature could take to reduce the rate of suicide?’ I would put that proposal near the top of the list.”
Banning conversion therapy: In April, for the fourth session in a row, a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy died in a Senate committee. It would have made it illegal for licensed physicians and registered health-care providers to engage in therapy with children under 18 that’s aimed at changing their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (Fourteen states have similar bans on the books, according to the Movement Advancement Project.)
The bill has long been a major legislative goal of the LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado, and is also supported by other groups like Mental Health Colorado.
Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, sponsored the bill in April and says she’ll carry it again in the session that begins Jan. 4 if she’s re-elected in November. She plans to ask those who testified against the bill to meet with her and try to find ways to come to a bipartisan understanding. Jenet emphasizes that even if Democrats take over the Senate, they’ll have to work across party lines.
“It’s not about pushing through some sort of an agenda,” Jenet says. “It’s about still working with all sides of the aisle to make sure that what we’re putting through meets Colorado values.”
Universal family and medical leave (sick days): In the last session, Rep. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, was a sponsor of this bill, which went on to die in a Senate committee.
Winter, who is running for Senate in a battleground district under GOP control, says she’ll continue to support similar legislation if she wins her Senate race. She’d also be in favor of a red-flag bill, which she co-sponsored this year in the House. But Winters wants to reassure voters worried about a Democratic monopoly on the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. “A good elected official always does a stakeholder process, always tries to make the policy work for those all involved,” Winters says. “Even if there’s a trifecta, at least from my standpoint, it won’t change how I operate as a legislator in sitting down with stakeholders that both agree and disagree with the policies, and trying to get ultimately the best policy out there.”
Transgender birth certificate changes: Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, has sponsored this four-time failure twice, and says she intends to try again if re-elected. “I’m hoping that 2019 will be the year,” she says. The bill would allow transgender people to change the gender on their birth certificates without having surgery and obtaining a court order.
Right to Rest Act: While it stands to reason that a Democratic majority in both houses wouldn’t hurt this bill’s chances, it may not be enough to pass it. The bill aimed at protecting homeless people has failed four times in the House.
Last sponsored by Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, and Rep. Joseph Salazar, D-Thornton, the controversial bill lays out rights for people experiencing homelessness, including the right to rest in public spaces, eat and accept food in public spaces, and occupy a parked vehicle. The bill could challenge many local laws that seek to control the state’s booming homeless population.
Salazar, who lost the Democratic primary for attorney general, is term-limited; Melton, though, is running for re-election. It’s not yet clear if any legislator plans to try the bill again.
Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, who’s up for re-election, calls the Right to Rest Act a “complicated one.” He’s voted against it two years in a row — though he was a prime sponsor of the paid family leave bill this year, and a co-sponsor of the transgender birth certificate bill, conversion therapy bill and red-flag bill. “I’ve never really agreed with the [Right to Rest Act] policy ultimately, but I understand where [Melton and Salazar] are coming from,” Gray says. Editor’s note: A previous version of this story claimed Faith Winter was term-limited. We regret the error.